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Castle Rock review: Forget Stranger Things, here’s an addictive new drug for Stephen King fans

Castle Rock review: Produced by master of the mystery box, JJ Abrams, the new anthology show is a loving homage to Stephen King’s universe, and a better mystery than Stranger Things.

tv Updated: Sep 12, 2018 14:26 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Castle Rock,Castle Rock Review,Stephen King
Castle Rock review: Pennywise Bill Skarsgard plays the mysterious young man, believed to be the devil.

Castle Rock
Cast - Andre Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek
Rating - 3.5/5

A couple of points deserve to be cleared up before we begin. Castle Rock isn’t an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing but an appropriation of it. It’s an anthology series, but not like Black Mirror - in that every episode does not tell a different story. It would, instead, fall under the same category as those Ryan Murphy FX shows. You know the ones: American Crime Story, American Horror Story, Feud, etc.

However, given the importance of Castle Rock’s setting - King has famously used the fictional Maine town as the backdrop for many of his popular stories - the most accurate comparison would be Fargo.

Castle Rock’s fascination, and adoration, for King’s universe is similar to what Noah Hawley probably feels for the Coen Brothers. Neither show tells a story we’ve seen or read before, but they feel so familiar - at least to the hardcore King and Coen Brothers fans - that watching them almost feels like being struck by deja vu. It’s sort of the opposite of listening to a cover version of your favourite song - which always tends to heavily rely on the interpreter’s voice more than the original.

Watch the Castle Rock trailer here

To be entirely honest, what shows, books and even plays such as this most resemble is fan fiction. Harper Lee’s recently unearthed To Kill a Mockingbird prequel, Go Set a Watchman, and JK Rowling’s unlikely Harry Potter sequel, The Cursed Child, immediately come to mind. Although each of these works has been created with either the participation or the consent of the original author - King is credited as an executive producer on Castle Rock - they can’t help but feel like a watered down version of the real stuff.

However, experiencing them is nearly always accompanied by a surge of electric excitement, probably because - by definition - these stories systematically check every box fans would expect, and provide a rare thrill to the reader or viewer of having somehow contributed to their success out of the sheer strength of fandom. Were any of us to be given the responsibility of creating a similar spin-off, Caste Rock and Fargo and all the rest of them seem to tantalisingly suggest, we’d probably hit the same marks, too. How’s that for gaining the audience’s favour?

For example, the first episode of Castle Rock opens with the warden of the Shawshank State Penitentiary committing suicide - indeed, the shadowy presence of Shawshank plays a major role throughout the course of the season’s 10 episodes. There’s something weird about the place, the gossipy guards whisper to each other; it seems to go through wardens like a florist outside a graveyard.

His death opens old wounds, and unleashes an army of skeletons that has forever dwelled in King’s closet - tragic childhoods, crummy communities, and suburban mundanity.

This image released by Hulu shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from Castle Rock. (AP)

After going through the dead warden’s possession, the guards discover that he was a man of many secrets. The most sinister of which was this: for years, he had kept a young man prisoner in the dungeons of Shawshank, convinced that he was the devil.

The young man is freed - well, not entirely; he’s just put into an official cell until they can figure out what to do with him - but he refuses to speak. The only words that come out of his mouth are ‘Henry Matthew Deaver’ - who is quickly identified as the same person who seemingly ‘staged’ his own abduction decades ago, and was rumoured to have murdered his adoptive father. Deaver (played by Andre Holland) is now a criminal defence attorney, specialising in death row inmates.

He is summoned back to Castle Rock - the town of his nightmares. Thus begins a devilishly detailed mystery - filled with segues into the supernatural, carefully created characters, and more winking references than you’d find in Ready Player One.

For instance, not only is the show happy in naming certain characters after famous Stephen King people - Jane Levy plays Jackie Torrance, niece of The Shining’s Jack Torrance - and retaining on the wall of the warden’s office the bullet hole from Norton’s self-inflicted gunshot, it has found an even nerdier way of delivering fan service: casting. The young man is played by Bill Skarsgard - Pennywise from It - and Deaver’s mother is played by Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek.

This image released by Hulu shows Andre Holland, left, and Sissy Spacek in a scene from Castle Rock, premiering July 25 on Hulu. (AP)

Every episode is riddled with these references, which - depending on how big of a Stephen King fan you are - could either be pure cocaine (10 points to whoever gets this reference), or a source of infinite irritation. It seems to me that it is more likely for non-King fans to warm up to it than for the devotees to dismiss it. Castle Rock is very well made, if a little unevenly paced. Either way, what cannot be disputed is the show’s love for King’s sprawling body of work.

The last couple of years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in his stories - which is slightly odd, considering just how old some of them are. But with the one-two Netflix punch of Gerald’s Game and 1922, the worldwide smash It, not to forget The Dark Tower, two concurrent TV series excluding this one -- Mr Mercedes and The Mist -- and three new films scheduled for 2019, there has never been a better time to be Stephen King.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Sep 12, 2018 13:11 IST